Words to live by from my father
“Money is like manure,” my Dad told me more then once. “If you store it up, it just stinks. You got to spread it around to do any good.”
Many of my father’s aphorisms were not original, but I didn’t know that at the time. I just thought he was a smart guy who had walked a lot of roads. From a Maine lumberjack to a Montana cowboy, he saw America during the boom years of the 1920’s when work was plentiful, to the Great Depression when men and women grabbed nearly any job they could find.
He was a railroad worker, called a gandy dancer in those days, and, until he could no longer stand the incessant bleating of the flock, a sheepherder. Then he took to cattle ranching, riding the fence line to check for breaks, and sleeping in line shacks where he read a lot.
One job he did turn down. The Chicago Mob approached him to help run animal pelts and booze from Canada.
“If you lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas,” he told me, paraphrasing Ben Franklin.
When I went off to college, I heard,
“You’re taking Cadillac courses with a Ford brain.” Apparently, he felt being a Chemistry Major was beyond my mental capabilities. It gave me incentive to prove him wrong, and to live by another of his gems,
“You don’t get stronger walking downhill.”
My Dad was a well-read man who left home right after high school to roam this country. Unlike many secondary schools today, his private Catholic school in Philadelphia required him to study Latin and the Classics, as well as the Sciences.
Dad’s parents were Irish Catholic immigrants, and a painting of the souls burning in Hell was on the wall at the foot of his bed. It was supposed to keep him on the straight and narrow, but had little effect.
“Philadelphia Slim” was his nickname during his poker playing days, and I’ve often wondered if my father, a contemporary of Nelson Algren, was the inspiration for the writer’s famous quote, ‘Never play poker with a man named Slim.’
A voracious reader of newspapers and close follower of the political scene, my Dad liked Mark Twain’s view on Washington. Once, I recall, he put down his newspaper in disgust, and looked over his glasses at me as I sat at the kitchen table doing my homework.
“There is no true criminal class in America, boy” he said, quoting the humorist, “with the exception of Congress.”
My father enjoyed anyone who took after politicians with a caustic wit, and H.L. Mencken was among his favorites. Long before the current political climate, I remember him shaking his head and quoting Mencken,
“On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
During a particularly nasty Senate race, my father mentioned another Mencken witticism.
“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
Another critic my dad admired was Will Rogers, and I got an earful of the Oklahoma Cowboy humorist.
“I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”
One night, after watching an early Tonight Show, my Dad turned to me and said,
“People are taking their comedians seriously, and their politicians as a joke.”
It was many years before I realized Will Rogers had said the same thing.
His observations weren’t confined to America. I had been reading Sherlock Holmes and mentioning life in the manor houses where some of the crimes took place. He said that Queen Victoria ruled over two Englands. One was composed of those who ate well, and one was composed of hungry citizens who died coughing.
“Dickens got it right,” he concluded, with his Irish logic. “Sherlock Holmes is just English propaganda.”
I think my Dad was proud of me when I finished college. I was the first in our family to graduate from a University, and he had some words of wisdom to smooth the path to adulthood.
“Remember, Tom,” he said as we stood together after the ceremony, “never insult the alligator until you’re across the river. And don’t go burning any bridges because you never know when you’ll be coming back.”
I nodded sagely.